Thursday, February 2, 2012

A story of big whales and big media

It's good to save the whales, even if they're animatronic.

In 1988, three gray whales found themselves trapped under the ice off the coast of Alaska, namely the tiny, top-of-the-Earth town of Point Barrow. To further complicate matters, the whales' path to the ocean was blocked by an enormous ice ridge. Panicky and exhausted, the whales were forced to surface through a small hole in the ice that allowed them to breathe. As the temperatures dropped, it became increasingly clear that even this hole would freeze over, dooming the whales to death by suffocation.

Fortunately for the whales, their story -- to use the media argot -- blew up. Reporters from more than 26 networks made their way to Barrow to cover a nail-biting adventure that culminated with the arrival of a Soviet icebreaker that helped clear a path for two of the surviving whales.

Big Miracle, a movie about the 1988 efforts to save these whales, calls these sea mammals Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm, a goofy homage to the Flintstones. I don't know if anyone really called the whales by those names, but Big Miracle uses traces of anthropomorphism -- as well as other ingratiating measures -- to make an already accessible story even more accessible. I'd call it wasted effort.

But let me not condemn a movie that's hell-bent on conveying the right message. In the washed-out world of family fare, Big Miracle qualifies as an entirely acceptable entertainment that's best when it derives its emotions from the whales -- a mama, papa and baby -- and less effective when it comes to the movie's humans, who engage in the kind of PG-rated interactions that are mostly unburdened by complication.

John Krasinski plays a TV newsman who's working on a series of features in Point Barrow when he learns about the stranded whales. His report eventually makes its way to the network. Environmentalist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) quickly joins the fray; she begins pressing for a major effort to save the whales. At one point, the whales are under threat of being "harvested" by the local IƱupiats, who have a long tradition of whale hunting.

The movie's additional cast includes Dermot Mulroney as a U.S. colonel who flies one of the helicopters that try to drag an oil-company owned icebreaker to the scene. He's being pressured by a presidential aide (Vinessa Shaw) who sees an opportunity to do some good while bolstering President Reagan's image with environmentalists.

Oil company executive J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) also capitalizes on the opportunity to look beneficent. Initially resistant to a save-the-whales campaign, McGraw eventually catches the spirit of a project that at times seems as crazy as it is noble. Rescuers dig a series of holes in the ice so that the whales can breathe while moving toward open waters.

To add kid flavor, we're given the story of an enterprising and appealing Inupiat boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) and his grandfather (John Pingayak), the figurehead who represents the ancestral ways of a people who mostly were ignored until the whale frenzy broke into the global conversation.

The script also hints at a possible love triangle. Kirsten Bell plays an aspiring TV reporter who's looking to make a name for herself. She catches Krasinski's eye, but he's still emotionally involved with Barrymore's character, a woman with whom he only recently ended a relationship.

Don't get the impression that Big Miracle has any sense of absurdity when it comes to the sight of an Inupiat elder chanting next to cameramen as they jockey for the best view of increasingly stressed whales. Director Ken Kwapis stays within general-audience parameters while giving the material a pre-teen tilt.

Some of what happens may upset younger kids, but Big Miracle tells its story in a way that's clearly designed to show that opposing forces can work together to accomplish ... well ... a big miracle, something that seemed especially noteworthy during the waning days of the Cold War.

One more thing: You'll see clips of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings reporting the whale story on the nightly news for their respective networks. They, too, I'm afraid, represent an increasingly endangered species, the network anchor. Got cable?

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